Sauna: A Nomadic Finn’s Perspective (Part 1)

uch has been said over the years about the phenomenon that is the Finnish Sauna; after all, it is by now a fixture in many countries around the world. Certainly the native Finns continue to say a lot about it within the borders of their own country. A couple of good documentaries have come out in recent years, such as the candid “Miesten Vuoro” aka “Steam of Life” – not a direct translation, by the way…

In one or both of these films, we see a glimpse into how integral the sauna is within Finland, and learn some interesting factoids: that there are more saunas per family than cars, for instance, or that the businesses and politicians like to seal deals while taking steam together. Without a doubt, it’s a big deal for them. Does anything more need to be said?

Sauna Stove - Detail of Spirit of the Ingrian Sauna by Henrik RyosaWell, here’s a question: What does it mean for me, as someone who was born elsewhere in the world, and yet, think of myself as no less a Finn than any of these folks, despite a different sort of upbringing in many ways? Perhaps those of us born in America, Canada, Sweden, and other countries, or who have moved around to many places in all corners of the world may have perspectives to share which contribute to the full meaning of this tradition.

I was just having a conversation with my mother, who herself has some experience in this; she moved away from Finland approximately 50 years ago, spent a short time in Sweden and then went on to Canada, where she’s been since.  She has had much time to reflect, and thinks it probable that a Finn removed from their homeland, or a child of one has more appreciation of what it is to be Finnish. A controversial thought perhaps, but it has a logic to it. Speaking only from personal experience, I can say that being denied of various things I once took for granted has greatly changed my appreciation of them, absolutely.

Karjalan piirakka for example. What a great joy when I tasted one again, or a good bowl of lihakeitto (called mojakka in Canada and the USA). And I’ve thought many times about my heritage… the myths, the lakes and forests, crafts and traditions… the music… and of course the way the people are. I see the differences between a Finn and a Swede, a Finn and an American, a Finn and a Canadian, all the time. These comparisons are always there in the back of the mind.

I’ll talk some more about these other things later. First it’s time to explore one of the greatest traditions of our people.

The Sauna-Womb

The Sauna was probably the first environment where I gained awareness as a human being. I can’t remember anything before that. It may sound strange to say, but it’s almost as if that’s where “I” was born, there with my parents, myself splashing around in a warm metal tub. It would continue to be a place of security and relaxation. In my book Inger: Father & Son, I recount:

“It became one of my havens of peace in those days, the hot moist air acting like a security blanket of sorts. The ritual of sweating and then soaping and rinsing, and finally cooling down again felt so right, and it cleansed my soul as well as my body.

The sauna was my first introduction to actually being Finnish. I found the pictures which had been blowtorched into the wooden walls fascinating to look at. I’d always find new details, and wonder a little about their origin and inspiration.”

A few decades later, I’ve been in dozens. It took a little time before I realized how unique our home sauna was; more on that in a little bit.

Discovering the world via Sauna

We were part of a Finnish immigrant community in Sudbury, Ontario, and it was a regular occurrence that groups of us would get together at camps as friends or as part of organized events. It was just always there, something you expect to do as much as you would expect to have a meal or go to bed at night. A makeshift trailer-sauna at “leiri” summer camp was used every day, probably even twice a day for a week during July of every year, a ritual punctuated by dive bombing off the dock into the lake.

This is a place where I learned much about social interaction and the different types of personalities which exist, at least just as much as in school. And most of all, about the duality of the human being.

Another place I got to sauna by a lake around that same time was at the home of our close family friend Lydia Juhola, affectionately known as “Lyyli täti”, who lived right on the shore of nearby Silver Lake. Her grandson Patrick became a close childhood friend and we were always horsing around together. His Finnish was much poorer than my own, which was itself terrible. After taking steam and jumping off the dock for probably a good couple of hours, we would run up the stone path for sandwiches and “mehua”, and whenever she spoke to Patrick he would just goofily answer “Yes, Moo-moo” or “No, Moo-Moo”. There we also learned that urinating on the kiuas stones is not a good substitute for standard water, and shampoo does not cover it up, no matter how much you use.

The Holy Home Ritual & The Ingrian Sauna

Polttopiirustus - Detail of Spirit of the Ingrian Sauna by Henrik RyosaAt home, we took sauna twice a week for pretty much all of my childhood and youth, the only exceptions really being for travel or special events, where there was usually one anyway and the frequency was as likely to rise as it was to fall. Saturday was the main day, and if anything was sacrificed, it was usually the Wednesday session. This was true bathing, and only showering was never particularly appealing when we had to do that. Such a statement might sound repulsive to an average westerner, but that just wasn’t our traditional way of cleaning. You feel like you get *much* cleaner from the steam.

Our sauna was electric, built by my dad in the late 60’s in the basement of the house. It was nothing fancy, just a simple three level bench with the stove directly off to the side of it, which was an unusual configuration, but usual for me. A shower was installed directly inside the heated area, not in a separate space. The walls were not planks or panels, but large sheet wood. Over a period of a few decades it became pretty worn looking, but still stood up surprisingly well. I’m not sure what kind of wood it was or how it was treated. The floor was simply cement, painted in what the Swedes would call “Falu red”, with a drain in the center.

He had done some kind of blowtorched artwork into the walls, “polttopiirustus” (literally “burndrawings”) as the Finns would call them, in staggered patterns. There was a fish, a horse’s head, a wagon, wagon wheel, sauna water bucket and ladle, and a few others I couldn’t quite make out. Over the years I would try, and might have asked now and then what they all were, but the answer didn’t stick too well!  Tying these pictures together were intricate patterns, so the walls and ceiling were entirely blanketed in this art. I did not know my dad to be an artist per se, but apparently there was some of it in him, and this was his magnum opus.

When the inspector came to approve the work on the sauna, he acted strangely upon seeing it, then finally said he would come back again to give his answer. Upon his return, he brought a partner, and together, they stared at it again for a long while. Still my dad got no approval, but no problems were pointed out with the construction job. A third time the inspectors returned, with a third man. Finally they gave the approval. It was clear that even in a community containing thousands of Finns, our sauna was something different, eye-catching and surprising to individuals who had seen hundreds of others – they had simply been making excuses to bring others to see it.

I myself, even today have never since run into a similar sauna, and never found any in all my research. There is a certain template when it comes to this important institution of Finland, which is typically followed, though yes, you can find saunas built in all kinds of haphazard ways. But it became my hunch, after learning more about his upbringing in Ingermanland, that his design was influenced more by the style of the Inkeri saunas, which were the subject of some of the few direct accounts of his childhood. Unfortunately, little direct evidence exists today due to the Soviet purges and destruction of the villages.

A Growing Consciousness

Löyly - Detail of Spirit of the Ingrian Sauna by Henrik RyosaAll our Canadian friends knew that we were sauna people, and it was popular for us to invite friends over for an evening of sweating it up. They often called it a “steambath” instead, so at some point that became a normal interchangable term everyone used, even among ourselves, being predominantly English speaking anyway among our generation.

Some didn’t know that it was seen as completely normal under certain circumstances to sit there together buck naked, or weren’t comfortable with that. Finns are sometimes seen as very comfortable in their own skin, and it’s not unusual to see those with man-boobs together with skinny guys, everyone just as comfortable letting it hang out as it were, one way or another. There were often mixed gender sauna sessions among groups of Finns, but bathing suits were used in those situations, except for the younger children. And sometimes, even with those of the same gender who weren’t accustomed to our ways, we’d all go in swim trunks and the girls would go in bathing suits or towels just to make them comfortable.

With groups of young guys and girls getting together for such activities, you saw a lot of skin even with bathing suits – sometimes the hormones flew. A person might expect that sexual experiences would be common in this sort of setting. That might be true to some extent, but for the most part, Finnish adults are quite clear that this is inappropriate. The sauna is almost always either a family environment, or a personal one – sacred even. This probably contributes something to the feeling of being part of an “extended family” among many Finns.

There does seem to be a small difference between Finland Finns and North American Finns. I can attest to being instilled with a certain amount of shame associated with the human body, and I attribute that largely to the added mixture of North American values and higher religious focus on chastity and purity. This is not to say that European cultures are all more sexual. In Finland, like with many indigenous tribes around the world, I think nudity is simply approached in a different, more frank way, which probably leads to less of this tendency to rebel; there’s little to rebel against.

In some parts of the world, I understand that saunas have supposedly gained a bit of a seedy reputation, but that was never my experience. Certainly it would be more likely in large centers where there is lots ofWash Basin - Detail of Spirit of the Ingrian Sauna by Henrik Ryosa party culture dominated by people who don’t come from our background. They simply try the custom and then think they are cultured because they have tried something fancy which lots of rich people have imported from an exotic far off region. They change it to become their own thing, and that often ruins it in the process, as with so many other practices.

When I first heard that the city of Helsinki only has something like one public sauna center left today, when a century ago there were dozens or more, I was initially aghast. How could such a central part of Finnish culture be so under-represented in Finland’s capital? Today it occurs to me that this may be an attempt for Finland to preserve its very way of life and continue to represent itself properly while faced with heavy tourism, rather than let visitors openly exhibit less tasteful behaviors in public and then have that make its way into the international media. Besides this, every hotel and other public building has them anyway – and in a more controlled setting.

It was indeed a growing phenomenon in North America too, no doubt because of the influx of immigrants during the early to mid 1900’s.  In our Canadian city, sauna was widespread enough to support having a couple of different shops at least which sold stoves and accessories: basins, ladels, thermometers, oils, various versions of the “vihta” or branch bundle, and various knick-knacks for having that “Finnish feeling” in ones home. Both were owned by different friends of our family, and perhaps there were some others on the other side of town.

After a while there was a tendency, especially as some of the Finnish immigrant families became wealthier, and others got into the game as well, to have the finest electric saunas built in their homes with parts imported in from Finland, or alternatively, Sweden.  These were without a doubt nice, but I rarely enjoyed them as much as the wood burning variety, or our own less fancy one which I had a “connection” with. I think that is ultimately a vital part of sauna for me.  It is either enjoyable or at least tolerable having to go wherever, but I certainly feel a need for a place where it can truly become a sanctuary of purification and meditation.

In those early days, I was just beginning to develop a true appreciation of it as that and how versatile a tool it is, and define for myself what sauna meant to me. By my mid 20’s, that sense was really developing. When I decided to become serious about getting in shape for the first time, it became an invaluable part of that regimen and I don’t think it would have been as easy to lose all the weight I did were it not for its inclusion.  I have since found quite a lot of supporting evidence for its various health benefits and as I’ll discuss in part two, it even became a tool of survival.

My last great memories of sauna in Sudbury were defined by regular sessions of chatting with my best friend about our respective futures and plans over various exported beers, always rating how well they went with the sauna along the way. Instead of “polar bear swimming”, in the winter we’d simply cool off by the window screen and deeply inhale the crisp cold air. These sessions helped focus us, and also to feel that the whole world lay open ahead. This came true in a lot of ways which you will hear about in the continuation!

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